When writing up my last post about the importance of presentation in relation to the viewer’s reaction to art, I was reminded of an interview that a former student of mine and fellow photographer, Kayla Wandsnider, conducted with me a few months ago. She was curious to know my thoughts on the nature of the aesthetic experience. I told her a story that once again speaks to the power of context and presentation in the experience of art:
KW: I believe that environment can play a substantial role in an aesthetic experience. Do you think that this is true?
JAS: Yes, totally. And experience I had in Salzburg, Austria, comes immediately to mind. It was a very gloomy, rainy day and I was cold and wet and tired. While walking down a narrow street in the inner city on my way back to my hotel, I decided to go into a church I happened to be passing. The building was nothing special on the outside- in fact, it was so plain that I almost didn’t recognize it as a church. I went in because I simply wanted to sit down and rest for a while. At the exact moment that I entered, the opening chords of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor rang out unexpectedly, filling the church with glorious sound that seemed to cascade torrentially out of the heavens. At the same time, light poured down through the church’s long, slender windows, in stark contrast to the overcast gloom outside. I was completely paralyzed with shock. I hadn’t expected it to be so light inside, hadn’t known that music of any kind would be playing, hadn’t anticipated that I would suddenly be experiencing something so moving, so beautiful, so arresting. I could hardly breathe, it was was so overwhelming.
I sank slowly into a pew as the music continued to play, not really seeing anything, living completely in the moment. It felt like time was suspended.
The combination of the location, the weather, the light, the music, my physical state and, yes, the unexpectedness of it all, led to one of the most profound aesthetic experiences of my life. And it wasn’t about the church building, it wasn’t about the music itself, it was an experience that came about because ALL of those things put together transported me to…. Somewhere Else. I will never forget it.